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Sui, Hong's hoedown edges U.S. pairs in short

Denney, Coughlin 3.4 points off lead; six points separate top five teams

China's Wenjing Sui and Cong Han will be trying a quad twist and a quad throw Salchow in their free skate.
China's Wenjing Sui and Cong Han will be trying a quad twist and a quad throw Salchow in their free skate. (Getty Images)

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By Lynn Rutherford, special to icenetwork.com
(02/11/2012) - Sometimes, not often enough, there is a perfect marriage of music, choreography and skaters, and there's no better example today than Wenjing Sui and Cong Han's country hoedown short program.

The twirling of lassos, barn-dance kicks and exuberant heel steps suit the diminutive yet fiery skaters to a tee, and after two seasons of practice, they have every move down pat.

Saturday afternoon, China's two-time world junior champions led the way with a high-energy outing punctuated by the highest-scoring triple twist of the event, fine side-by-side triple toes and an explosive throw triple flip that gained +3 grades of execution (GOE) from eight of the nine judges.

Their total, 66.75, is a new season's best.

"Today, we got high points and did our best in the short program," Han, 19, said. "We feel so very happy."

The duo, famous for its fearless tries at death-defying quads, will not disappoint fans here.

"Sure, we will try both the quad twist and the quad throw Salchow in our free skate," Han said. "I hope we are successful."

Gold is still well up for grabs as just six points separate the top five pairs heading into Sunday's free skate.

U.S. champions Caydee Denney and John Coughlin are 3.40 points out of first after one of their most relaxed and smoothest short programs to date, featuring a soaring triple twist, solid side-by-side triple toes and a clean throw triple flip, the element on which Denney fell at the 2012 U.S. Figure Skating Championships last month.

"I think when [the fall] happened at nationals, I was a little shocked at myself," Denney, 18, said. "It wasn't a mistake that happens a lot. We just approached it as not really changing what we think or do in training, staying to that plan."

"Neither of us had it on our minds until it was time to tap for the flip," Coughlin said. "We kept it in its compartment."

The skaters and their coaches, Dalilah Sappenfield and Larry Ibarra, think Saturday's program is another building block for the world championships, to be held in Nice, France, at the end of March.

"We're getting closer and closer to doing it, the way we've been training it at home," Coughlin, 26, said. "We skate pretty consistently at home, pretty free at home, and that's what Dalilah and Larry are always talking about: doing it the same in competition as we do in practice."

U.S. silver medalists Mary Beth Marley and Rockne Brubaker sit third after a strong performance to their charming Singin' in the Rain short, marred only by Marley's two-foot landing on the throw triple Lutz. They earned a season-high 62.42 points, less than a point out of second place.

"I feel that we executed everything very well," Marley, 16, said. "I two-footed the throw, and the twist we could have done better, but overall the levels we got worked very well."

The team had a rather spectacular fall on side-by-side triple toes in the six-minute warmup, with both hitting the ice in perfect unison.

Brubaker thinks it may have helped.

"We talked before the warmup and thought it would be better to get that one out of the way," the 25-year-old said with a laugh.

"You have to have a short memory; you make a mistake, you bounce right back up. We're at the point now, we make a mistake, usually we know what went wrong. Sometimes it might be a little better; you make a mistake, and you're really focused on that correction."

Narumi Takahashi and Mervin Tran showed off intricate choreography and complex transitions in their "Imagine" program, including a "somersault" entrance into their death spiral, but Takahashi fell on a triple Salchow.

The Japanese champions, who train in Quebec, earned 61.54 points.

Amanda Evora and Mark Ladwig, third at the U.S. championships, had an elegant performance to Gershwin's "The Man I Love," marred only by Evora's two-footed landing on an under-rotated triple toe.

They sit fifth with 60.75 points.

"Nationals only happened two weeks ago and to see our score higher -- as well our goal was to be in the 60s -- we were very excited to see the mark," Evora, 27, said. "It's only six points from the people who are in first, and anything can happen in the long."

"We had the second-highest PCS, and that's something you can hang your hat on," Ladwig, 31, said. "Elements come and go, but your skating skills [have] got to stay up there. The performance quality, you have to maintain that. We kept our skates on the ground and our hearts soaring."